Durable Growth

You can’t go home again, part 6: Seattle is good

Madison Park sidewalk

Madison Park sidewalk

In recent posts, I’ve been describing a trip I took this summer to the Pacific Northwest, a region where I lived from 1982 to 2000.  The trip allowed me to observe the progress of urbanism in the Northwest, with particular attention to lessons that can be applied to the North Bay.  The most recent post is here.

My previous posts have been about Oregon.  For this post, I’ll jump across Columbia River to look in on how Seattle is doing.

Observation #11: Urbanism feeds on itself – For the five years I lived in Seattle, my home was at the edge of the Madison Park neighborhood.

Madison Park waterfront

Madison Park waterfront

Madison Street is a principal street in downtown Seattle, running perpendicular to Puget Sound.  After crossing the relatively narrow width of the city, Madison Street ends at Lake Washington in the Madison Park neighborhood.  So Madison Park has a strong connection to downtown Seattle.  But it has also developed its own local character.

Our home was about a mile from Madison Park, far enough that we only occasionally walked the distance, but close enough that it was a regular destination for dining, groceries, and other elements of daily life.  Twenty-five years ago, it was a comfortable little commercial district, serving the neighborhood well.

On my recent trip, I walked through Madison Park, perhaps the longest walk I’d taken there since I’d moved away.  It remains a comfortable place.  And many of the businesses that I remember from 25 years ago are still there.  But the retail area is now twice the size that I remembered.

Many commercial areas have doubled in size in the past 25 years, usually because of population growth.  But

Madison Park retail

Madison Park retail

the Madison Park neighborhood hasn’t grown, at least it hasn’t grown very much.  It was a fully developed neighborhood 25 years ago.  Perhaps clever land-owners were able to squeeze in a small apartment building or a few mother-in-law flats, but Madison Park remains much the same place it was a quarter-century ago.

And yet the retail area has perhaps doubled in size.  Why?  Because people like walkable neighborhood retail.  And as more people come to amble, to dine, and to do daily chores, more businesses open doors to serve them, which attracts yet more people.

It’s a good process to watch.  Old businesses remain in place to become trusted friends, existing buildings add new stories, and homes on the periphery convert to professional offices.

The growth of urbanist retail is an organic process that is antithetical to master-planned power centers.

Madison Park business

Madison Park business

But like any organic process, it doesn’t work in a barren field.  It needs fertile ground way.  A form-based code so that neighborhood-appropriate buildings can easily change uses.  A parking management plan so that vehicles can be accommodated without choking life from the neighborhood.  And a shared neighborhood vision.

It was good to see that my old neighborhood is getting the equation right.

Observation #12: Urbanism is a path, not a destination – The Seattle that I remember from the 1980s was a fully realized urban place.  A hearty downtown with gathering places such as the Pike Place Market and Seattle Center.  Strong and distinctive neighborhoods with pockets of useful retail.  A good bus system.

Seattle was a fine urban place when I moved away in 1987.  And it’s a better place today.  Neighborhood retail is stronger through the city.  Pockets of worn-out housing have been replaced with high-density residential.  The bus system is stronger.  And rail transit has established a beachhead.

Perhaps the most exciting development is an under-construction streetcar line between downtown and the University of Washington.

It was a reminder that, unlike drivable sprawl which peaks on the day when the ribbon is cut for the new big box or subdivision and goes downhill from there, walkable urban can keep getting better over time, adding new features and regenerating the older elements.

It’s a process that continually brings new excitement and promise.  And Seattle is full of both.  I’ll soon visit again, with more time to poke around.

Next post, I’ll offer a few final thoughts about communities I visited on my way from the North Bay to the Northwest.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

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